Wednesday 27 May 2015

Wishes and Luck

2270 Commercial Dr.
Vancouver, BC 
(604) 484-9371

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore approved?  YES-  Chef Ciaran Chung's sharing plates menu is chock full of delicious local goodies and is expected to change often.  All of the produce that we enjoyed was a reflection of the current season, and there are seafood and meat options that are locally sourced (mussels from Salt Spring, BC salmon).  Furthermore, they insist on making everything in house, from the bread to the house-made cheese.  

I once again have Scout Magazine's "Anticipated Openings" for putting yet another gem of a restaurant on my foodie radar.  Wishes and Luck is the creation of Ciaran Chung who learned from the best at Vancouver greats like Abattoir and Boneta.  His partner is Dolly Reno who previously owned the well-respected Lear Faye Espresso Bar, the space that now houses Wishes and Luck.

The Drive has been on fire lately, first with the opening of the awesome new Thai joint Kin Khao (see my review here) and now Wishes and Luck which, having just opened less than 2 months ago, is already firing on all cylinders.

Like most places in this neck of the woods, Wishes and Luck has a very laid-back vibe, with a good dose of hipster.  The words written on the wall on the way in, "I got lucky in East Van", are playful and set the tone for the unpretentious, relaxed ambience.  As you enter the main space, you will pass a very nice bar leading into the main seating area which has booth seating along the far wall.  The space feels deceptively larger than it is, especially when the outside seating area is opened up as it was on the night of our visit.

Myself and my friend showed up on the later side at around 10pm and the restaurant, at which time they were about half full.  Wishes and Luck has been quite a hot spot since opening, with lineups to get in on most nights (no pesos accepted) so perhaps our late entrance worked in our favour.  We were greeted by a lovely women working front-of-the house, who immediately got us seated at a booth-style table and within seconds, our server appeared to say hello.  Service throughout the evening was friendly and low-key, but attentive, and our server obviously knew the menu quite well as she answered our questions about cocktails and specific dishes.  There were numerous servers who came by during the meal to bring our dishes and check in to make sure everything was to our liking.

The menu at Wishes and Luck is divided into a number of sections including "starter plates", "farmland + sea" (the larger plates), "hearty vegetables", "cured meats", "cheese" and "sweet somethings".  I had expected a typical sharing plates concept, and ended up being quite surprised at how substantial the dishes were (especially those in the "farmland and sea" section).  My friend and I ordered 3 "farmland and sea" plates and a vegetable dish and were were stuffed to the point that my friend brought almost a whole dish home with her!  Although I encourage sharing, you could could easily order just one dish here for yourself and be completely satisfied.  A last note to vegetarians- the menu was just fine for a pescatarian like me but the selection of vegetarian dishes is limited.  Do not let this dissuade you from going however- it does state at the bottom of the menu that there are vegetarian and even vegan options to order.

In addition, Wishes and Luck has quite a sizeable cocktail list, with many very original creations.  It was very difficult to choose just one!  In the end, I decided on the Vancouver, with house-made spirits and a hint of fig.  I personally found it to be a bit strong for my taste in terms of alcohol flavour.  My friend on the other hand wanted a sweeter drink with a juice base that she really enjoyed (sorry,forget the name!).

Here is a look at the dishes that my friend and I decided on to share:

Salt Spring Mussels (crunchy potatoes, garlic aioli, roasted pepper)- We were a bit taken aback when this dish emerged from the kitchen as it was not exactly what we were expecting.  Interestingly, the mussels were all out of their shells and were sitting on a bed of potatoes.  Usually, potatoes do not excite me but I must tell you that these were the crispiest, tastiest potatoes I have EVER had (would die to know the secret!).  If the potatoes weren't already enough to blow us away, there was also the epic garlic aioli that I could have eaten in spoonfuls.  As you can tell from the picture, I got carried away right off the bat so half the dish was consumed pre-picture:)

Wild BC Salmon (lightly cured, potato gnocchi, rapini, roasted garlic) - This was a very generously-portioned dish, and this is only a small scoop that I had taken from the larger dish after we had eagerly dug in).    I loved the smokey flavour on the perfectly-cooked salmon which made the dish just that bit more unique and it balanced very nicely with the slightly bitter rapini.  Th gnocchi were very soft and pillowy and, once again, they scored major points for a scrumptious sauce.

Roasted Pork Belly (jerk spiced, spring peas and turnips)- Once again, we were really shocked at how large this dish was (not your typical sharing plate!), especially my friend as I am pescatarian so the two large pieces of pork belly were all hers (she eventually surrendered and brought a lot of the port home).  From my end, I adored the lovely assortment of beans that accompanied the pork
(favas, black beans, peas).  So light and fresh!

Salad of Squash (fresh cheese, citrus, toasted pumpkin seed vinaigrette) - Although we were already pretty full by the time this last dish came out, I was still eager to dig into this one as I had read some pretty glowing online reviews.  And let me tell you, this dish deserves all of the positive accolades a million times over.  They transformed the humble into a magical dish, with 3 different preparations of squash, each with a unique texture, and some orange slices for some unexpected bursts of sweetness.  The dish was then finished off by a light, creamy sauce.  Really too good for words.

Overall Impression?
Although I knew that Wishes and Luck would be good considering Chef Chung's strong culinary background, it far and away surpassed my expectations.  At the end of a great meal, there are usually one or two dishes that stand out but here, every single dish was memorable such that I wanted to go back the next night and have the exact same dishes again.

I cannot think of a better addition to the Drive's ever-expanding foodie scene!

Wishes & Luck on Urbanspoon

Monday 11 May 2015

The Much-Anticipated and Long-Awaited Grapes and Soda

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  Resoundingly YES-  Just like her big sister, Farmer's Apprentice, Grapes and Soda is built around the locavore philosophy.  Local ingredients make their way into every dish and even every cocktail at this wine bar, never overshadowed and always respected.  There is no greater homage to local fare than this.  

The time has FINALLY come!

David Gunawan has done all of us South Granville dwellers mighty proud with the overwhelming success of The Farmer's Apprentice.  Since its opening just shy of 2 years ago, it has won a multitude of awards, including top spot in Vancouver Magazine and, and runner up in En Route Magazine (just behind Tofino's Wolf in the Fog).  Gunawan sure has done us proud.

We were therefore super excited when, last May, Gunawan and his team announced that they would be opening a 25-seat wine bar right next to the Farmer's apprentice.  We couldn't wait to find out what Gunawan had up his sleeve, but unfortunately, the wait proved to be much longer than anticipated, just short of a year to be exact.  We do not know all of the details about why they have been so delayed in opening but the important thing is that everything is now worked out.  We visited them on their 4th day of being opened (their first-ever Saturday) to see if all of the blood, sweat and tears were worth it.

Just like the neighbouring Farmer's Apprentice, Grapes and Soda is quite a small narrow space, with a very cool wooden bar on one side that greets you as you walk in, and seating for about 20-25 guests on the other side.  At the back is a tiny kitchen that takes care of the small food menu (separate from the Farmer's Apprentice kitchen).  Be sure to take a peak at the the side of your table facing you to discover a neat design feature- a built-in drawer just large enough for your cellphone/smartphone!

The service on the night of our visit was extremely attentive and polished, with no obvious wrinkles to be worked out, with more staff than would be anticipated for so few tables.  We had a very kind and knowledgeable female server take our order, answer our questions about the cocktails and explain all of the food dishes (she obviously knew them inside out).  Another male server (perhaps a manager?) refilled our water without once leaving us with less than a quarter glass and constantly checked in to ask how we were enjoying things.  No newbie service glitches here.  All pretty seamless for its fourth day of existence!

The philosophy at Grapes and Soda mirrors that of Farmer's Apprentice- uber seasonal and local right to the core.  Pretty much everything they offer, with the expectation of the wines which are curiously all from France and Italy, is made/grown locally.  This includes not only the food, but also the cocktails, many of which had unexpected earthy ingredients such as herbs (sorrel and lemon thyme)  and even more "out-there" additions like parsnip sorbet and beet shrub.  Do not leave without sampling at least one of these genius concoctions!

The food menu is quite limited as is to be expected at a wine bar, with a handful each of plated dishes and cheeses.  Each plate is paired with a suggested wine pairing underneath (available by the glass).  They very kindly spilt the glass into two so that Hubby and I could each enjoy a half glass with our dishes and the pairings were spot on.  If you are looking for a nice way to end your evening, they also offer a couple desserts that adhere to the same local-inspired theme with components like wild honey,  sorrel sorbet, juniper and elderflower.

Here is what we enjoyed on the night of our visit:

Grapes and Soda- This cocktail, the first on the menu for obvious reasons, was a nicely balanced blend of grape shrub (a syrup of grapes, sugar and vinegar), dry vermouth, benedictine and soda.

GNS Clover Club- This tequila-based cocktail was my pick and I could not have been happier with my choice.  I loved the beet and rhubarb syrup base (sweet and sour) with a hint of thyme.  Isn't it pretty?

Smoked trout, endive, ikura, rhubarb, olive oil- I really appreciated the subtlety of flavours in this dish.  None of the components overwhelmed the other, so that you could taste a hint of lightly smoked trout, a sniff of rhubarb and a bit of crunch from the endive and ikura (roe).

Pairing- Maupertuis "Pink Bubbles" '13, Auvergne, FR- The best sparkling wine I have ever had!  Made with 100% Gamet grapes according to our server.

Asparagus, goats yogurt, sprouted wheatberries, lemon zest- What a debut to the asparagus season!  Thinking of this dish still makes my mouth water.   While the asparagus was fortunately front and centre, the accompaniments made this dish even more special.  The goat yogurt on the bottom was creamy and delicious and the wheatberries on top added nice crunch.  A bite with all of the these components together was just out of this world.

Pairing- Clos Roche Sauvignon Blanc No. 5 Touraine '12, Loire, FR

After a very lovely experience at Grapes and Soda, with our cocktails and few light dishes, we turned our minds to dinner, which was a bit of a no-brainer with the Farmer's Apprentice right situated right next door.  Our server kindly went to check on table availability and fortunately, there was the bar-top table right by the window that has just been freed up.

I have previously blogged about Farmer's Apprentice back in 2013 when it first opened (see here) and sadly we have not been back for dinner since then until now.  Our experience was great the first time, and this time the food blew us away even more, making us kick ourselves for not coming back sooner.  Every dish was created and executed with the utmost care and attention to detail, and the plating was visually breathtaking.  Here are the dishes that we enjoyed:

Porcini mushroom, book toy, XO, salt cured duck egg- The meaty mushrooms and thinly-sliced book choy were a great duo in this Asian-inspired vegetarian dish.  Normally this would not be Hubby's thing but the vegetarian XO sauce, with its characteristic fishy-salty flavour, made him love even his least favourite veggies.

Octopus, spring veloute, green tomatoes, puffed rice- This dish is nothing short of perfection and lends itself very well to sharing (if you are feeling generous).   The smokey octopus was perfectly prepared and the brilliantly green veloute was so delicious that I felt compelled to scoop up every last drop.  PLEASE leave this one on the menu for as long as possible, it is way too good to let go!

Sweetbread "dan dan", hazelnut, peashoots, chill, king oyster mushroom-  This dish immediately caught Hubby's eye as he had enjoyed dan dan at David Chang's restaurant in Toronto and wanted to see how this one measured up.  It took only one bite and Hubby was completely mesmerized, saying little else but "WOW" as he devoured every last bite.  He loved the potato "noodles" (just slightly heavier in texture than rice noodles) and raved about the sauce the whole way home.  His favourite dish of 2015 so far!

And to finish off a wonderful evening- elderflower jellies for the road!

Overall Verdict?
Dave Gunawan has succeeded yet again, in a big way.  Grapes and Soda is the perfect compliment to Farmer's Apprentice, and I highly suggest that you not check out one without also experiencing the other.  I cannot think of a better way to spend the evening than enjoying a drink and a light snack at Grapes and Soda, and then heading next door to Farmer's Apprentice to treat yourself to some of the most beautifully plated, most creative and most deliciously local food in Vancouver.  If that is not a dream come true, I do not know what is.

Grapes & Soda on Urbanspoon

Monday 4 May 2015

Le Vin Papillon- Montreal's locavore destination

2519 Rue Notre-Dame O, 
Montréal, QC 

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- From the first look at Le Vin Papillon's chalkboard's menu, it is blatantly obvious that these guys love their veggies.  The produce-forward menu is revamped daily, keeping some old favourites and adding some newbies based on what they can get fresh.  On the night of our visit for example, they had a good number of vegetarian dishes but also a  "shellfish theme" as they were able to get in a lot of fresh, local seafood that day.   As you will read below, they were able to transform vegetables into dishes that could satisfy even the most hard-core carnivore.  Who could miss the meat when eating your veggies is so darn tasty?    

Being in Montreal for a whole month for work, I was excited to try all the best that Montreal's food scene had to offer.  When I polled people who knew the city, the overwhelming consensus was that I needed to visit Toque (done!- see here) and Joe Beef.  Because I am pescatarian, I did not think that Joe Beef would necessarily be my thing, but I was very intrigued when I heard about Le Vin Papillon, their vegetable-centric sister restaurant.

Le Vin Papillon is located just a couple doors down from the infamous Joe Beef and their other sister restaurant Liverpool House (an oyster bar) in Old Montreal.  It is the smallest of the restaurant group, with just enough space for 25 guests inside the rustic, sparsely decorated interior.  On one side is a white brick wall and booth seating, while the other side houses the kitchen/bar which is covered in a variety of cheeses and breads.  When we arrived at 7:30 on a Friday night, we were told it would be a 45 minute wait and that we should come back then (no reservations allowed, and they do not take names at the door).  We knew it would be worth the wait so we went to a little coffee shop right next door to bide our time and returned about 35 minutes later to scout out the prospects.  While the inside was still full, we were fortunate that the patio out back had opened a few short days earlier and there was a seat available for us there.  It ended up being a beautiful evening and, while it got a bit chilly after the sun had gone down, it was a nice April al fresco dining experience.

The service at Le Vin Papillon is just as low-key as the atmosphere.  The servers are nice enough, but do not expect any bells and whistles.  While our server was happy to answer all of our questions about wine and food, I could tell she was very busy and was only able to come back to our table a handful of times to refill water and check up on us.  It is certainly possible that we got a bit less attention, being out on the patio instead of inside.  Dishes come out of the kitchen whenever they are ready, in no particular order.

The only menu you will find here is on a chalkboard right as you walk in the restaurant (all in french) and because the do not offer printed menus, we snapped a picture and brought it back with us so we could decide on our meal while seated in the patio.  Every night, there are about 15-20 sharing plates to choose from, as well as a nice selection of cheeses and a few desserts.  On the night of our visit, there were also a few special seafood dishes available including local sea urchin and snow crab.  In keeping with their name (vin= wine), they also take great pride in offering a very unique selection of organic and biodynamic wines.

Our server recommended a particularly great Burgandy-style blend called Deux Terres from the south of France that had incredible depth of flavour.  They take great pride in serving superior wines and are happy to let you taste before committing to a glass.

Here are the dishes that myself and my two dinner companions enjoyed on the night of our visit (***= table favourites).  We were much more full than we thought and could probably have done with one less dish but I was glad to have tasted them all!  

***7-layer dip-  Although it is quite a toss-up, this is arguably my favourite dish of the night although with so many great dishes it is tough to choose just one favourite.  It had muitple luscious layers of beet, eggplant, hummus and goat cheese (to name a few) with some crunchy nuts on top, served with an indian-spiced flatbread.  I cleaned out the bowl!  I could have easily made a meal out of a few of these and been more than satisfied!

Oeaf a la Cane Remoulade- This was quite a unique dish, with soft-boiled eggs served with julienne veg and a creamy yet light sauce.  With an egg for each of us, it was easily shared.

***Smoked steelhead with pickled turnip-  Another unanimous table favourite.  The fish was simply prepared so you could taste all of its wonderful fresh flavours.  It was served with a light dill cream sauce underneath which was a perfect match (gotta love fish and dill!) with chunks of the pickled turnips.  Alongside was a piece of their braided bread (made at a nearby bakery from what we understood) which was incredibly light and fluffy.  Even for someone like me who can usually take or leave the bread, this was impossible to resist. 

Celeriac bagna cauda- It is rare to see celeriac front and centre in a dish like it was here so this was a special treat for the taste buds and the imagination.  The celeriac was served in thinly-shaved pieces, still with a slight crunch, and served with a light cream sauce and salty capers.

***Rotisserie cauliflower-  OMG.  I honestly thought I died and went to heaven.  Golden brown on the outside and warm lemony goodness inside.  No amount of description can do it justice.  Just order it.  

Foie gras- My dining companions enjoyed this dish, although the foie was not as creamy as others they have tried in the city.  The side of pickled cucumber, leeks and fiddleheads (my personal favourite!) was nice for both presentation and lightness to offset the foie.

Overall Verdict?
After dining at this Montreal gem, it is easy to understand why the Joe Beef clan is so well respected and well renowned.  Le Vin Papillon delivered some of my favourite dishes of the year thus far for a steal of a price ($100 for thee of us before tip).  Seems like something out of a dream.  I am still pinching myself!  

Le Vin Papillon on Urbanspoon

Saturday 2 May 2015

The Best of the Best at Montreal's Toqué

900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle 
Montréal, QC 
(514) 499-2084

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- As per their website, Toqué was born out of a desire to "to create a restaurant based on market-fresh cuisine where the emphasis is placed on local products".  From the time they opened in 1993, this restaurant has undergone many changes, including a huge expansion, but has always stayed true to its local-driven roots.  On their website, you will find a long list of local suppliers that they buy from, divided by region, and when you dig into the food you can appreciate the quality of the ingredients.  Any restaurant that is built on such an engrained locavore philosophy is bound to be become the success story that is Toqué

When the "Canada's 100 Best" restaurant awards came out this year, I was pretty excited to see that Montreal’s Toqué was rated #1 restaurant in Canada.  Although it would have been great to see a Vancouver restaurant take top spot, I knew I would be spending a month in Montreal for work in April and, of course, made plans to pay Toqué a visit during my stay. 

I must admit, my first impressions of Toqué were not quite what I had expected.  At first, I had a hard time finding it despite google maps telling me I had arrived at my destination.  While I was hunting for the entrance, expecting a compact and snazzy sign, a gigantic potted flower caught my eye.  And, to my surprise, there was “Toqué” written on it!  This seemed like a bit of an odd choice for the entrance of such a high-end restaurant but it was certainly “unique”.  

The inside, however, was much more in keeping with my preconceived expectations.  The smartly-decorated entrance led into the main room, with a nice bar at the front and a sprawling dining room at the back with dark wood panelling and red accents.  We were seated in booth seating along the wall, which was very spacious and comfortable.  The acoustics of the room were notably superior, as, despite the very busy room with multiple tables on either side of us, it was very easy to carry on a conversation comfortably without having to raise one’s voice.

Although our whole experience at Toqué was wonderful, the aspect that stood out the most for me was the superb service.  Our main server was very witty, constantly making jokes with us once he knew we were game for it (professionally of course), and he came back to check on us often.  Our water glasses were refilled constantly and seamlessly, and our multiple dishes were brought out by several servers so they arrived together.   Although some of the servers had a bit of difficulty explaining the dishes in English, they did their best to explain them in great detail, describing each component.  I can honestly say that our sommelier was absolutely exceptional, to the point that he surpassed those that I had at any Michelin star restaurant I have visited.  I highly appreciated that he spent time describing each wine carefully (sans pretention) and answering all of our questions about the selections he had chosen to pair with the tasting menu.  I often find that sommeliers sometimes speak at quite a high level, which is not always helpful for someone like me who is not an expert wine connaiseaur, but this sommelier told us very interested anecdotes about the wines (where they came from, what went into making them) that really made his explanations captivating.  At the end of the meal when the men began asking his opinion of certain more expensive digestifs on the menu, he very generously brought out a few bottles for them to try.  The icing on the cake!

So now for the question of the hour- does the food at Toqué live up to all of the hype? After enjoying the most extensive option offered, the 7-course tasting menu with 7-course wine pairings, I answer that with a big resounding YES.  Every dish was well conceived, having multiple layers of flavor without being over-complicated. The dishes were beautifully presented, using the colors of the ingredients to please the eyes instead of using gimmicky plating techniques. I considered the 7-course tasting menu to be perfectly portioned, leaving us satisfied but not overstuffed.  It was all-around an expertly constructed, cohesive progression of dishes. 

Below is a little glimpse into our wonderful meal.  They graciously adopted the menu to meet my pescatarian needs on last-minute notice, substituting the 2 meat courses with fish dishes.   The menu also gives the option for a foie gras course or a fish course, and later on, a cheese course or an extra dessert. The tasting menu changes nightly (the dishes differ from those on the a la carte menu) so it was only thanks to the menu that they printed for us at the end of the meal that I can provide the detailed names of the dishes and pairings (just another example of the stand-out service!). 

Feast your eyes on this!

Amuse Bouche

Sea urchin with ginger, sriracha, soy, daikon, shallot
Pairing- Vin de France 2012, Quartz, Les Cailloux du Paradis

Snow crab with dill mayo, white asparagus and pickle (my favourite of the night!)
Pairing- Bourgogne 2013, Chardonnay, Francois Mikulski

Black cod "charbonniere" with orange sabayon, crispy vegetables, buckwheat and young dandelion
Pairing- Alsace 2012, Bildstoeckle Riesling, Gerard Schueller & Fils 

Foie gras with orange brioche, hazelnuts, squash mustard, apple reduction (the favorite of my dinner companions)
Pairing- Alsace 2013, Gewurztraminer, Vilain Petit Canard, Domaine Rietsch

Lamb with red pepper puree, artichoke, foraged oyster mushroom
Pairing- Cyclades 2011, Mavrotragano, Hatzidakis

Walleye with potato and baby onion (pescatarian substitution)

Duck with parsnip puree, black garlic puree, shiitake mushroom, madeira sauce
Pairing- Ceraiolo di Vittoria Classico 2010, Delle Fontane, COS 

Halibut with red pepper puree and potato (pescatarian substitution)

"Le Troupeau Benit": Feta and Graviera (cheese course)
Pairing- Crozes Hermitage 2012, Les Croix, David Reynaud

Guimauve a la baie de genievre- chocolate ganache, citrus sorbet, black currant and almond biscuit
Pairing- Murcia, Vina Enebro, Meditacion, Juan Pascual

Parfait glace au yogurt- blueberry mousse, granita and fir meringue
Pairing- Maury Grenat 2012, Le Petit Baigneuse (this last pairing blew me away!)

And if that wasn't enough- a few little treats for the road!

Overall Verdict?
There is no doubt that Toqué has earned its title of best restaurant in Canada.  The experience that they provide for their guests is second to none, with all of the qualities that I look for in a perfect meal- pleasant surroundings, polished service with a smile and without attitude, and local ingredients prepared with a nice balance of simplicity and creativity.  Toqué nails it all, and then some.

Toqué! on Urbanspoon